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Political Theology

If this story of Jesus is the story of Israel reaching its climax, it is inescapably political and will raise questions the Western world has chosen not to raise, let alone face, throughout the period of so-called critical scholarship. The post-Enlightenment world was born out of a movement that split church and state apart and has arranged even its would-be historical scholarship accordingly; and that same Enlightenment insisted that Judaism was the wrong kind of religion, far too gross, far too material. Rejection, from the start, of a “political” reading of the gospels and of a “Jewish” reading went together. Fortunately, genuine history–the actual study of the actual sources–can sometimes strike back and insist that what a previous generation turned off this generation can at last turn back on. It is time, and long past time, to reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology–not because they are not after all about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are.

~ from How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N.T. Wright

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“Sign and Foretaste”

Here it is. Only a few days left before Pentecost, and the beginning of “Ordinary Time,” or as it can also be called, “Growing Time.” I have been reading N. T. Wright‘s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during this Easter season, and then sharing those quotes that have been particularly helpful in reading 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s fullest treatise on the nature and significance of the resurrection of the body. And, because I typically bite off more good food than I can appropriately digest, I also tried to work in the “Holy Sonnets” of John Donne, a 16th-century English preacher and poet. This is the concluding post of the series, and we have one verse of 1 Corinthians 15 left to consider, in light of all we have seen and heard about the Easter resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and what that event means for our own promised resurrection still to come:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Maybe this verse surprises you. Taken on its own, without the previous verses, it doesn’t seem to fit with a conversation on resurrection. Why should we be “steadfast, immovable” when we will be raised to new life? Isn’t Easter about the victory of Christ, that “It is finished!”, and not that we should continue “excelling in the work of the Lord”? What is Paul saying?

Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, “Therefore, since you have such a great hope, sit back and relax because you know God’s got a great future in store for you”? No. Instead, he says, “Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What we do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether….They are a part of what we may call building for the kingdom. (Surprised by Hope, 192-193)

A surprising conclusion. Easter, the resurrection, new life, and victory over death, all of this points not to our own comfort and security, but to the work that we are called to do. Wright continues:

The point is this. When God saves people in this life, by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed — it isn’t too strong a word — to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future. (Surprised by Hope, 200)

Easter’s reflections and celebrations of Christ’s victory and our sure resurrection ends with Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to gather and equip the Church for its work in the world. We in the Reformed tradition might recognize the language of “sign and foretaste” here, because we use this phrase to describe what is going on in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us a “sign and foretaste” of the heavenly banquet that we will enjoy when our Lord and Savior returns in glory; in the same way, I don’t think it too much to say that the church — yes, even the complicated mixture of sinful and sacred that it is — is sacramental in nature, a “sign and foretaste” of the full reign of God that we will enjoy — and work toward now “not in vain” — when our Lord and Savior returns in glory. This is the radical and surprising hope we hold, not that we will go to heaven, but that heaven is already on its way to us and through us! Thanks be to God!

In one last “Holy Sonnet” from Donne, we hear a fairly classic interpretation of salvation: that Christ’s sacrificial death seals a mysterious exchange, our sin for “death’s conquest.”

Holy Sonnet XVI: “Father, Part of His Double Interest,” by John Donne

Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdom, thy Son gives to me,
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives to me his death’s conquest.

This Lamb, whose death with life the world hath blest,
Was from the world’s beginning slain, and he
Hath made two Wills which with the Legacy
Of his and thy kingdom do thy Sons invest.

Yet such are thy laws that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfil;
None doth; but all-healing grace and spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.

Thy law’s abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!

Donne, as he has in each of these “Holy Sonnets,” articulates a spiritual truth, and then explores it artfully. Let us remember, with Donne, that “All-healing grace and Spirit revive again what law and letter kill”;

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Amen, and Amen!

“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.

“This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:3-11)

Today the Church celebrates the Ascension.

Or, at least, it’s supposed to. I don’t know of too many (any, actually) churches holding special services this evening. It’s never bothered me before: growing up, we’d go to Christmas Eve services and Christmas morning services; we’d go to Maundy Thursday services and Good Friday breakfasts and Easter Sunrise services. The incarnation of Jesus and the Passion of Jesus are both easily key theological and worship occasions in the year’s calendar. But the ascension?

The Heidelberg Catechism, as it usually does, gives us helpful answers to, “Why the Ascension?”:

Q&A 49
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.

Q&A 50
Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church, the one through whom the Father rules all things.

Advocate. Pledge. Head. The Heidelberg Catechism distills these answers from the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament, and offers compelling reasons why perhaps we should be gathering for a truly unique and appropriate occasion of worship this evening.

Still not convinced? For further evidence, I turn to N. T. Wright:

Why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer…is that the ascension demands that we think differently about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism regularly operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view.  Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians….It’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this….

Only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand — when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present — are we rescued from a wrong view of human history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus. (Surprised by Hope, 110-111 and 113)

For this reason, N. T. Wright suggests compellingly that today is the most appropriate celebration of “Christ the King,” and not the end of the Liturgical Year (which, Wright argues, confuses Christ’s real, present reign with the influence of the Church). We may not be gathering today to worship and celebrate Christ our Lord and King, but let us not forget in our work, our rest, our play, and our daily small acts of personal devotion and worship, that “Jesus is Lord.” Amen!

“God’s Future Plan”

I have been reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope during this Eastertide, (partly because it was assigned during my first year of seminary and I didn’t have time to read it until now that I’ve graduated, but) mostly because I have a very thin understanding of heaven, resurrection, and what Easter actually means for the church, and it is precisely to such readers that Wright wrote this book.

Wright’s second section, titled “God’s Future Plan,” is where Wright addresses all (well, most) of the questions I would guess readers are expecting to find answers to. What/where is heaven? What/when is resurrection? Is all of this for real? His reading of the New Testament is insightful, and I find his answers particularly compelling. Much of this section interacts with 1 Corinthians, which is one of the key New Testament letters for our understanding of the resurrection. I have been working through it over Easter, and this week we read perhaps the best known verses of chapter 15:

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:53-57; see also Philippians 3:20-21)

These verses are read often in church, and of course they are! They are words of assurance after confession, of comfort by hospital beds, of power at funerals and grave sites. The last verse, especially, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is a powerful message of hope and celebration, like an oasis or refuge in particularly arid and oppressive circumstances.  For a creative exploration of this “victory,” I offer another of John Donne’s so-called “Holy Sonnets”:

Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God; For You,” by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne and Paul remind us that the victory is not ours, but our Lord Jesus Christ’s. In all of our readings of 1 Corinthians 15:53-57, I fear we tend to focus on the good news of victory for the individual, who is either grieving or suffering, or who has passed through suffering in death. Pastorally, it is fitting to speak words of victory in such moments, but N. T. Wright wowed me with this insight in his conclusion to his part 2, “God’s Future Plan”:

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question — to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world — may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in out own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (Surprised by Hope, 185)

This is an outstanding call to expand our conversations of death, life after death, resurrection, heaven, hell, final judgment, and even election and predestination, beyond the narrow “who’s in?” and “who’s out?” to consider what God is up to in the grand scheme of reconciling all things. I doubt this is a satisfying answer to someone deep in the heart of death’s seeming victories, but then, such people are rarely in the mood for a theological treatise. When we are shocked to find Death still at work, seeming to have an upper hand in spite of Easter’s glorious triumph, we must turn to another of John Donne’s sonnets and say, “Death, be not Proud.”

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

…Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.